Caroline Shaw is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a Kanye West* collaborator. In the Venn Diagram of Pulitzer Prize winners and Kanye West collaborators, she stands alone. She’s also the youngest person to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music at the age of 30. Good luck, other Pulitzer Prize winners that want to work with Kanye West while in your 20s.
Shaw creates and composes the kind of music that makes the listener feel like they’re in a really great Paul Thomas Anderson film. Her work with Roomfull of Teeth, specifically the track “Passacaglia”, transports the listener.
Brightest Young Things: Are you visualizing anything when you’re playing or composing music?
Caroline Shaw: Yeah, constantly. I sort of wish I could be a choreographer but I know I won’t get to be. I like to think of some of my music as choreography. Some of it I actually think of as film, and I won’t get to be a filmmaker because it’s awfully expensive to be one but when you think about these different textures and colors and extensive narratives and space and what things are foreground and what things are in the back and the sense of richness and excitement, I don’t know I used to look at paintings a lot, so everything is sort of visual and spatial and kinetic.
BYT: What are some of the paintings that have inspired your music?
C.S.: Some of my stuff with Roomful of Teeth was like sort of, I mean, 5% of it was inspired by a painting of Sol Lewitt, an artist whose work is on display at Mass MoCA. But of course by a lot of bands that I’ve seen and worked with. I used to, when I was in college, I was kind of obsessed with the Cubists then I became obsessed with old 15th century Flemish art – Netherlandish, incredibly detailed, incredibly colorful, but simple at the same time, I love that. I don’t really think about that when I’m writing.
BYT: What do you think about when you’re writing?
C.S.: I usually find the what I call the ‘basic ingredients’ of the piece which for me, harmony is such an essential thing. So I spend a lot of time at the keyboard finding the really essential parts. And then it depends on the piece, it depends if it’s for voices, or a string quartet, or if I’m making something for the computer, or if there’s more electronic freedom. I always think of pacing and when does it lag and what could propel it forward. It’s a lot of different things.
BYT: Is there anything sacrilegious about what you do to some of the people that taught you or maybe the industry that taught you? Because you’re doing a lot of new stuff.
C.S.: Yeah. Well some of it is really new and some of it is really quite old. I don’t really think of myself as someone who’s really breaking down any barriers but maybe if it happens along the way that’s really cool. I don’t know if there’s anything I’m doing that’s particularly offensive, I try to avoid that. Electronics is still very new to me right now so if I do something that sounds artificial in not the right way I just avoid it. So I’m always looking kind of towards the most organic, the most natural, the most human kind of thing. Which is why I really love writing for voices, I’m really proud when I’ve written something that can be made without any electricity.
BYT: What’s something different that you’ve done in the last twelve months that you’re just completely shocked, in awe, and in love with?
When we asked Shaw what she’s listening to she told us St. Vincent, Bach and silence. Sometimes she walks around New York City with earplugs in her ears.
I make music all of the time and in that moment writing something I’m usually thinking about it or playing with ideas in my head so I can’t have other sound in there. And earplugs are great because it mutes everything. I mean it could be dangerous, I have to be careful when I’m by a subway platform. But you can hear the sound of your heartbeat, it kind of mutes everything. I don’t always do it but if I’m really trying to concentrate on something that’s what I’ll do.
New York particularly is so loud all of the time and the sound is more crisp. I can still be in my own world with all of those sounds going on around but it’s a much nicer experience, it almost mutes the visual around me too when I have earplugs in.
Whether creating music from nothing or remixing already good works, Shaw has a knack for creating ear worms. We recommend putting on any of her tracks while wearing headphones and going down a spiral. It’s a great way to lose a sense of time and place.
Here’s the piece that won Shaw the Pulitzer, “Allemande (1st mvt)” from Partita for 8 Voices. See Roomfull of Teeth perform it this Saturday, Feb. 13 at Sixth & I presented by Washington Performing Arts.
*This interview was conducted before this Tweet.